I am at a bar. It’s loud. There is live music. And cheeseburgers. I missed dinner tonight because I was making a speech at a dinner banquet. Which is ironic when you think about it.

Everyone at this big banquet was eating hors d’oeuvres, sipping expensive chardonnay, and chowing down on Maine lobsters the size of baby grand pianos.

I could hardly keep my mind on my speech because the ballroom was full of people in tuxedos, all wearing little plastic bibs, making a chorus of slurping, sucking, licking sounds.

A woman at the head table who looked like Queen Elizabeth II was wearing a bib. She kept asking me, “Now, how exactly were you invited to this dinner again?”

Each time I answered, she would get this far-away look in her eyes and start sucking meat from a lobster leg like a baby Wolverine.

So I felt out of place. I felt even worse when the waiter informed me that the bar didn’t stock Natural Light.

Pretty soon, Queen Elizabeth forgot all about me. Butter sauce

dripped down her chin, all over her bib. She would lick her hands violently when she didn’t think anyone was watching. And I don’t mean just her fingers. This woman was actually licking her forearms and her tennis bracelet.

When my speech was done, the last thing I wanted was to stick around and eat lobster with the Royal Family, so I found a beer joint that was open late. Which is where I am now.

It’s a dump, and there are lots of people here. There’s a guy playing guitar. He plays a rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl” and sings in a voice that is faintly reminiscent of the late Daffy Duck.

The lady bartender gives me a menu and asks, “What’re you so dressed up for?”

“I was just at a banquet.”

“Wow. Fancy pants.”

“You shoulda seen them eat lobster.”

They cut down the old oak tree today. It was an enormous tree. One of the biggest I’ve ever seen.

I was on my walking route when I heard the chainsaws running. I stood by the curb and watched the young worker crawl up the trunk and take it down from top to bottom.

They scaled it like trapeze artists, swinging from limbs with chainsaws strapped over their shoulders.

There was an old man by the street, with his dog on a leash. He was watching. He was stock still.

“That tree’s been here a long time,” he said. “It was here since my parents were babies.”

“You know this tree?”

He nodded. “My mother grew up beneath that tree. She rocked me to sleep underneath that tree when I was born. We used to live in this house. A long, long time ago.”


Another nod. “Used to sit underneath that tree with my grandparents. They used to visit us all the time. My granddaddy showed me how to polish my own shoes under that tree. Do

kids still polish their shoes?”

“No, sir. I don’t think they do.”

He smiles mournfully. “Well, we used to. My granddaddy was a World-War-I guy, kept his shoes polished to a mirror finish. He’s dead now.”

The old man sighed.

“Granddaddy only came to one of my baseball games in his whole life, because he grew up in Walker County. He was from the country. He grew up hard, he didn’t even know how baseball was played.”

The top of the tree fell. The green wood cracked loudly. And I could not help but feel like the world was losing something important.

The young treemen were attacking the fallen logs with chainsaws as though the logs had insulted their mother.

“A rope swing used to hang on that tree,” said the old man. My mom used to swing on it. My last…

Today I am visiting the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind I’m Talladega.

I meet a lot of people.

My tour starts in preschool. I watch children, small children, with hearing loss and visual impairment, learn to speak American Sign Language. Their little hands are unsure and shaky. They are just learning the gestures. Some are shy. Others are animated and wild.

I sit in on the pre-K class American Sign Language class and learn to sign “thank you,” and “nice to meet you,” and “I really have to pee.”

I also learn how to make the ASL gesture for applause, which is like making jazz hands. I get plenty of practice at “applause.” I also learn that all kids love making the ASL sign for applause almost as much as they love, for example, candy.

Next I visit the Helen Keller School. I meet middle-school kids who are dissecting frogs in biology class.

Hell hath no greater torment than frog dissection.

“Stick around,” says the teacher. “After lunch we’re dissecting a fetal pig.”


I learn how to sign, “fetal pig,” in ASL. Which is not nearly as fun as “applause.”

I visit the music building on campus. The building is a state-of-the-age music facility, with grand pianos galore. I meet the piano teacher. She shows me a book of braille sheet music.

I ask her if braille sheet music is more difficult than normal sheet music. Her response is to laugh at me until she his out of breath, then wipe her eyes.

I meet one pianist, a kid who is wearing sunglasses. He is playing incredibly well alongside a band of students who have hearing loss and vision impairment.

When they finish, I make the sign for applause.

The kids seem unimpressed by this. So I try the sign language gesture for “I have to pee.”

One kid furrows his brow and asks if I need…

I have a confession to make. I am addicted to my cellphone. I’m not proud of it. I don’t like admitting it. But I’m coming clean, publicly.

I feel naked without my phone. I shower with my phone. In fact, on many occasions—I am not making this up—I have ordered dog food in the shower.

It’s gotten bad. When I wake up, the first thing I do is check my phone. When I make coffee, I’m reading email.

When I wander outside to let my dogs sniff every blade of grass in the known universe simply so they can pee in the exact same spot they’ve peed upon for the last 3,298,119 consecutive mornings, I’m scrolling social media, viewing photographs from people I don’t even know, reading about what they ate for supper last night.

I’m hopeless.

Last night, for example, I lost my cellphone in the car, and it was dark. I looked for my phone for 15 minutes, USING THE FLASHLIGHT OF MY PHONE.

This is shameful. There used to be a time when we

had no smartphones. I remember the tech-free era because I grew up during this period.

My generation had no computers, no cellphones, no smartwatches, indoor plumbing, etc. We entertained ourselves with only Highlights Magazines, Slinkys, and Polio vaccines.

You see, kids, during my childhood, shortly after the Spanish-American War, our phones were not smart. They were dumb phones. They were big, black phones which could only be installed by the phone company. They were Soviet-style phones, mounted in the kitchen, with 500-foot cords, rotary dials.

Back then, our phones were made of steel, industrial plastic, and asbestos. The phones weighed about 1,900 pounds and—hard as this is to believe—they did not even shoot good video.

Even so, as a kid, you spent very little time talking on a phone. Namely, because you were always on your bike.

You grew up on your bike.…

Dear little girl, you are not ugly.

I say this because currently, over 78 percent of American young girls think they are ugly. Over 78 percent of girls hate their physical appearance. Seventy-eight percent despise their own self-image. Seventy-eight percent are disgusted with themselves.

You know who you are. And you know how you feel about yourself.

You are bombarded with an onslaught of online images from a body-obsessed culture. Your sense of self-worth is sinking. You constantly compare yourself to the phony models you see on your phone screen.

Social media is full of such plasticized figures with impossibly tiny waists, pronounced cleavage, and enlarged assets.

And even though all these online images are fake, they make you feel unpretty. Unspecial. Unseen. You walk into a room of your peers and you feel less-than. You feel under-confident. Underloved. Under everything.

Maybe you feel overweight. Maybe you think you’re too skinny. Too tall. Too short. Maybe you think your hair is too curly. Too straight. Too stringy. Too thick. Too coarse. Maybe you have a particular physical

feature you hate. Maybe it’s got you depressed.

Maybe you have complexion problems. Maybe you have acne. Maybe your teeth aren’t the way you want them to be.

Either way, you feel unbeautiful. Unlovely. Unattractive. Un-spectacular. Un-special. Uncool.

Oftentimes you see yourself in the mirror, or in photos, or in candid cellphone videos (God help us all), and you dislike what you see. Namely, because you’re comparing yourself to an image you’ve seen in a magazine, or on TV, or social media.

Over time, this distaste for yourself festers. Soon, you start to dislike yourself. Soon, it’s not just your appearance you hate, it’s the whole enchilada.

Is any of this ringing a bell?

I thought so.

Well, you aren’t alone. And it’s not much better for boys. According to research, 58 percent of boys dislike their bodies. What are we doing to…

Homewood, Alabama. When you walk into Salem’s Diner, it’s the people you notice first.

It’s not the ‘50s music on the radio. It’s not the framed black-and-white photographs of World-War-II-era college football heroes, frozen in time, mid-tackle, plastered on the walls.

It’s not the tiny faux-wood booths, or the stacks of complimentary newspapers for customers who prefer print instead of iPhones.

It’s not the beautiful smell of pork and sausage. The scent of coffee and hickory smoked pork products.

It is the booth in the back. The one chock-full of white-haired men who are engaged in solving America’s biggest problems over bottomless cups of Joe.

It is the waitress who calls you “baby,” and does this non-ironically.

It is the cook who can crack 12 eggs, stir the grits, and fry the belly of an entire sow using only one hand.

You walk into Salem’s Diner, and you’re taken backward on the timeline because these people are the characters of your childhood.

You grab a seat. The waitress approaches you with a coffee urn. She is no spring chick.

Her name is Joyce. She is a little long in the tooth to be a waitress.

Joyce tells you she has been working for the Salem family since she was 14 years old. Currently, she is a great-grandmother.

“Got a job working here when I was a little girl,” she says. “The Salems treated me good from Day One. I just never found a reason to leave.”

Our cook today is Spencer. Spencer is prepping his flat top for today’s lunch rush. There is always a lunch rush at Salem’s.

That’s because this little out-of-the-way diner was recently voted to have the best Philly cheesesteaks in the United States. Not long ago, a famous TV personality told an audience on network television that Salem’s Diner had better Philly cheesesteaks than Philly. This place became world famous overnight.

Spencer is partly responsible…


I am trying so hard to find happiness in my life, but I can’t. I’ve just gone through a divorce. Do you know how to find true happiness?



Here’s the short answer. No.

Now here’s the long answer. Heck no.

My mother always said happiness was like catching a lightning bug. Once you catch it, now what? You have two options. You can either (a) put the bug in a jar and kill it, or you can (b) let it go. Either way, the bug will die a grisly, arduous death.

My mother was always so uplifting.

My uncle once told me happiness was like homemade ice cream. It always melts, it’s always a soupy mess, and it’s always a pain in the everlasting aspirations to make. Even so, it’s great while it lasts.

Have you ever tasted homemade ice cream? Whenever someone homemakes ice cream, it’s a pretty good day on planet earth. Especially if this ice cream is vanilla.

Vanilla homemade ice cream, among the old-timers and church people I

come from, is a narcotic. It causes people to do strange things to acquire it. I know people, for example, who would drive upwards of 12,000 miles to get a bowl of homemade ice cream. I am one of these people.

Here’s a true story. My uncle had a friend who got out of prison when he was 65 years old.

His friend, who I’ll call Sweet Pea, was covered in crude tattoos. He was wiry and lean. He walked with a bent posture because of all the broken bones earned in prison fights.

Sweet Pea was a gentle, quiet guy. And his face was messed up from a prison accident. When he got out of prison, the one thing he’d been looking forward to, among other pleasures, was homemade vanilla ice cream.

He used to dream about it while he…